Summary Written by Rex Williams

The Big Idea

Solving Problems Anywhere, Solves Problems Everywhere

"Our days of isolation are behind us. In today’s world, what happens 'over there' impacts 'over here.'"- Abundance, introduction

You have to admit, things are different now. Compared with even just a few years ago, the ubiquity of cell phones and the connection to information on a world wide scale has caused an explosion of collaboration and innovation, even the overthrow of governments.

Specifically, the viral spread of cell phones in Africa has “had about the same effect as a democratic change of leadership” says business executive Isis Nyong’o. In 2001, 134 million Nigerians were sharing 500,000 landlines. By 2007, Nigeria had 30 million cellular subscribers.

Africa and other developing countries are skipping the wired cable infrastructure stage and entering directly into instant wireless access to all the same information that the developed world has, creating what Diamandis calls, “the rising billion.” These are the 4 billion people occupying the lowest strata of the economic pyramid, the so-called bottom billion, who have lately become a viable economic market. Individually, they may live on less than $2 a day, but their aggregate purchasing power creates significant possibilities.

Crucial is the sharing of information, which is our latest, our brightest, commodity. “In a world of material goods and material exchange, trade is a zero-sum game,” says inventor Dean Kamen. “I’ve got a hunk of gold and you have a watch. If we trade, then I have a watch and you have a hunk of gold. But if you have an idea and I have an idea, and we exchange them, then we both have two ideas. It’s nonzero.”

And ideas are spreading across the planet at remarkable speed. Over the next eight years, three billion new individuals will be coming online, joining the global conversation, and contributing to the global economy. Their ideas – ideas we’ve never before had access to – will result in new discoveries, products, and inventions that will benefit us all.

Insight #1

Exponential Technologies are Accelerating Global Change

"If you want to know if technology is accelerating fast enough to bring about an age of global abundance, then you need to know how to predict the future."- Abundance, page 51

Exponential growth is a simple doubling: 1, 2, 4, 8. When you start below 1 (as in .0001) the curve looks like a horizontal line for a while, 13 doublings before it gets to 1, but only seven doublings later the line has skyrocketed above 100. This quick explosion is hard for our mind to fathom, but it is exactly what is happening in multiple technologies, not just computer processing speed.

It started in the early 1950’s when the Air Force tracked the accelerating progress of flight from the Wright brothers forward. They discovered a shocking conclusion: a trip to the moon should be soon possible. Sure enough, the USSR Sputnik and US rockets to the moon occurred right on schedule, according the exponential curve. Later, in 1965, the famed Gordon Moore discovered that the number of integrated circuit components on a computer chip had doubled every year since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958. The trend has continued for 5 decades and is known as ‘Moore’s Law”.

Diamandis and Kotler single out one man, Ray Kurzweil, as the father of predicting technological trends. In his multiple books, Kurzweil and his team of researchers make multiple predictions about the future. In 2009, 89 out of his 108 predictions made in 1999 came true outright and another 13 were close. Diamandis was so struck by the pervasiveness and potential of exponentially growing technologies for improving the global standards of living that he partnered with Ray Kurzweil to found Singularity University (SU), where people can study eight exponentially growing fields: biotechnology and bioinformatics; computational systems; networks and sensors; artificial intelligence; robotics; digital manufacturing; medicine; and nanomaterials and nanotechnology. Each year the graduate students are challenged to develop a company, product, or organization that will positively affect the lives of a billion people within ten years. While none of them has met their mark (after three years), great progress is being made.

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Insight #2

The Power of Incentive Prizes

"…by their very nature, they [incentive prizes] are nothing more than a focusing mechanism and a list of constraints."- Abundance, page 225

If you didn’t know already, Peter Diamandis was the man behind the X PRIZE; the incentive competition to find out which non-governmental entity could fly a person into space, return them safely, and do it again within two weeks. It was an amazing success and the story behind it can be found in other sources.

The point Diamandis makes in Abundance is that an incentive competition wasn’t a new concept. The first one that he is aware of was in 1714 when the British parliament offered £20,000 to the first person to figure out how to accurately measure longitude at sea. Not only did it work when a clock maker solved the problem, but its success launched a long series of incentive competitions, including Napoleon for food preservation, the French government for a hydraulic turbine, and others that have driven breakthroughs in transportation, chemistry, and health care, the most significant (to Diamandis) of which being The Spirit of St. Louis which propelled Lindberg to make his historic flight.

The power of incentive prizes can be attributed to four main principles:

  1. They raise the visibility of a particular challenge and create a mind-set that this challenge is solvable. (Example: human space flight by non-government entity.)
  2. They break bottlenecks where market failures have hindered investment or entrenched incumbents have prevented progress. (Example: BP oil spill.)
  3. Their ability to cast a wide net from experience in seemingly unrelated fields. (Examples: clock maker for measuring longitude, solutions to BP oil spill from 350 teams.)
  4. They produce an increased appetite for risk, which further drives innovation, due to the competitive framework.

Along with this is the power of small groups. With no bureaucracy, little to lose, and a passion to prove themselves, small teams consistently outperform larger organizations when it comes to innovation. Incentive prizes are perfectly designed to harness this energy.

Diamandis is so confident in the power of incentive prizes that he created the X PRIZE Foundation, which has launched six competitions in a variety of subjects, has awarded four of them, and conceived of another eighty-plus that are awaiting funding.

“They are a great way to steer toward the future we really want. So start your own. Help with ours. Whatever.” says Diamandis.

“I’ve always believed the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself, and in my five decades of experience, there is no better way to do just that than with incentive prizes.”

In conclusion, Abundance contains a plethora of research and success stories to demonstrate that cutting edge technologies and methods are now being used to make dramatic advances in the areas of clean water, food, health care, education, energy, and freedom. The authors show us the real possibility of a world where every human has their basic needs of humanity met, and as we approach this goal, an even further acceleration of progress will occur.

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Peter Diamandis

Dr. Peter Diamandis is the Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, which leads the world in designing and launching large incentive prizes to drive radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. Best known for the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private spaceflight and the $10 million Progressive Automotive X PRIZE for 100 mile-per-gallon equivalent cars, the Foundation is now launching prizes in Exploration, Life Sciences, Energy, and Education.

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